In June of 2020, I set out to hike just the first 470 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Less than two weeks into my adventure, I thought to myself, “What the heck, why not do the whole thing?” It was then that I decided to hike the entirety of the nearly 2,200 miles that summer. I later decided that I would also write a book about it. “Rocks Roots and Rattlesnakes” is that story of my daily adventures, as written from a geologist’s perspective.
It was indeed a great adventure. I began as a northbound hiker, or “NOBO,” for 1,184 miles to Swatara Gap, Penn. From there I performed a transformation known in the AT hiker’s community as a “flip-flop.” In a week, I would no longer be a NOBO, but instead, beginning in Maine until I finished the trail, I would morph into a SOBO. During my journey, I hiked to the top of hundreds of mountains, 38 of which were more than a mile high. Beginning in the Georgia Blue Ridge, I clambered through the Proterozoic metamorphics of the Nantahalas, thrusted Ocoee metasediments of the Smokies and over the mix of volcanics and diamictites of the Mount Rogers-area of southern Virginia.
Climbing over these peaks required hours of grueling uphill travel in the intense heat and humidity of the southern Appalachians. Most of my nights were cooler and I camped in my trusty Altaplex tent, made from a high strength but lightweight material known as Dyneema fabric and miraculously weighing only 14 ounces. Nearly all backpackers today use ultralight materials to keep weight to a minimum, and nearly all these ultralight materials originate from petroleum.
My “flip-flop” from Pennsylvania to Maine in September meant more than just changing directions. I was entering a new world, a new climate, full of very different flora and fauna. I was in a new physiographic province with different rocks than I had seen before, including a wide range of plutonic emplacements, some as young as Jurassic age. There were signs of the last ice age etched into the bedrock everywhere I looked. The structural grain here was of the same northeast-southwest orientation as that of the central Appalachians, but these rocks were folded and thrusted not by the Alleghanian Orogeny, but by the much earlier Taconian and Acadian Orogenies. On top of that, the days were shorter and the skies were clearer. I had experienced the transformation from summer to autumn in one day.
Over the next two months through New England, I chased the fall through the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the Mahoosucs, the Whites, the Greens and the Berkshires. Occasional blasts of winter weather would greet me on many mornings as I emerged from the warmth of my goose down bag. Finally, on Nov. 17, after 150 days and nights on the trail, I reached Swatara Gap for the second time, thus completing the loop and finishing my thru-hike.
The book about my five-month journey hiking the Appalachian Trail is written as a series of daily logs originally transcribed from my journals, with additional details added later from further recollection and research. All the stories are true and contain elements of human interest relating to the many people I met on my adventure. As for the title of the book – nearly every moment of the day, I had to carefully inspect the trail before me in order to not stumble over the ubiquitous rocks and roots, and to be ever vigilant for rattlesnakes.
My goal in assembling the book was to provide entertainment and information for two main audiences. First, for those who have hiked the trail, I included stories relating to places and landmarks all thru-hikers have seen, along with frequent observations about some of those mysterious rocks beneath my feet. For those new to the trail, or who have never hiked long distances, this is a glimpse into the wonders and excitement out there to be discovered, as told by just one of the many thousands of past thru-hikers.
It All Begins with an Understanding of Plate Tectonics
My introduction to the book is a brief overview of plate tectonics involving four orogenic events resulting in the Appalachian Mountains of present day. The story is well known to most geologists but to the non-geologist reading the book, is an important first step in understanding the tectonic events leading to the formation of the rocks and resulting landforms seen today along the trail. The story begins with a discussion of Wilson cycles, focusing on two of the last three cycles, involving the formation and breakup of the two ancient supercontinents, Rodinia and Pangaea.
During the assembly of Pangaea, three more orogenies occurred along the Laurentian continental margin as the Iapetus Ocean continued to close: Taconian, Acadian and Alleghanian. Each one of these plate collisions caused a crumpling – faulting and folding – of the crust and the formation of long extensive mountain chains. In addition, emplacement of plutonic rocks and periodic volcanic events occurred throughout these time periods.
This geology introduction continues, citing examples of when and where sediment eroding from these once great mountain belts came to rest, and where examples of exhumed plutonic and volcanic rocks are found today. Throughout the book, references to many of these rock types and occurrences are mentioned, intermingled with my daily adventures and encounters.
150 Days of Discovery
As a geologist, I have added a fair amount of content pertaining to the rocks I encountered, their geologic history and relevance to the present trail. I have woven those explanations and observations into stories about my daily experiences. Most of my background as a geologist has been in studying sedimentary basins, and most of the rocks encountered along the trail were, well, not sedimentary. Metamorphic and igneous rocks such as those found in the Blue Ridge and New England are far more prevalent and provided an enjoyable re-learning experience for me.
During my career, one of my pet research areas was searching for evidence for reactivation of faults in the basement complex below the Appalachian sedimentary basin, which affected depositional patterns and later structural development throughout the Paleozoic era. This was one of my favorite topics in geology and involved the use of many types of geophysical datasets as well as massive amounts of well-log data in order to image, model and interpret deep crustal faults in the metamorphic and igneous basement complex. I spent thousands of hours researching, studying and mapping this phenomenon and conducted technical presentations on dozens of occasions. Those deeply buried basement rocks I had spent so much of my career studying and mapping were the same rocks under my feet throughout most of the Blue Ridge physiographic province from Georgia to Pennsylvania.
As I walked each day on nearly every imaginable kind of rock over the almost 2,200 miles, the surrounding geology was always on my mind. It is woven into the fabric of the text. However, this book is in no way an attempt to match or replace any of the existing geology guides to the trail, such as V. Collin Chew’s 1988 masterpiece, “Underfoot.” It is rather an attempt to infuse my story with frequent musings pertaining to the rocks I encountered each day, including a lot of interesting and useful advice that a future thru-hiker may appreciate.
In the appendix, I have combined an assortment of published trail data with analyses of my own data collected over my 150 days. Using Excel and its regression analytics, I looked for correlations between multiple parameters collected along the way and used graphics to highlight various aspects of my journey. The resulting graphs and charts will hopefully be of interest.
It is my hope that readers will find my occasional meanders into “rockthink” both entertaining and informative. Seeing and touching the rocks at the surface is akin to just seeing the above-water tip of the iceberg.
And, who knows? Out of all the future readers of these pages, perhaps just one might be bitten by the geology bug and decide to spend five months on this same journey.
Motivation for Thru-hiking the AT
So why did I decide to partake in this extreme form of “sufferfest,” as a ski buddy recently described it, over a period of more than five months – feeling every day like I was either training for the Olympics or had enlisted in some sort of perpetual boot camp?
First, I have always loved the outdoors and that, in a big way, is why I became a geologist. I recall, on early family vacations, coming home with a rock-and-mineral set following a visit to a New England quarry town, or some other kind of geological attraction. I also recall taking my first geology class taught by Mrs. Betty Gibson as a freshman at Catawba College, after which I immediately changed my major from business to geology, and never looked back. My fascination with the Earth and its natural processes over incomprehensible timespans has always been intoxicating to me.
I also recently retired from a 38-year career as a geoscientist in the energy industry, a career that I pursued passionately. However, in that pursuit, I had spent more hours per week working than I wished to continue. Having now more free time than ever before has finally allowed me to indulge in such extracurricular activities as this. So, a simple response to the question of why I did this hike could be, “If not now, when?”
In 2021, I completed several more long-distance hikes, including Linville Gorge loop trail in western North Carolina, Pennsylvania’s Laurel Mountain Trail, Vermont’s Long Trail and West Virginia’s North Fork Trail. In 2022 I returned to the Carolinas again in the spring to hike the Foothills Trail, and then in August travelled to Denver to complete the 486-mile Colorado Trail through the Rocky Mountains. My 2023 goals are to hike the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail, or perhaps return to Maine to begin the International Appalachian Trail.
Of course, each of these hikes has a great geologic story to be revealed. So many miles of trail, so little time…
To learn more and to order a copy of the book, visit RocksRootsandRattlesnakes.com.